In 1957, following the Whitechapel Gallery’s seminal exhibition 'This is Tomorrow' that helped launch Pop Art in Britain, Richard Hamilton wrote a letter in which he defined the characteristics of the movement: “Pop Art is: Popular, transient, expendable, low cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous, big business.”
David Hockney (b. 1937), 'Swimming Pool', 1965. Oil on canvas, 61 x 61cm. Private Collection, Monaco. ©David Hockney.
These terms would become synonymous with the work produced by British Pop artists between 1947 and 1969, a revolutionary period explored in an exhibition at Christie’s new gallery space in Mayfair. The show is the first in London to devote itself to surveying the British Pop Art movement.
As Richard Cork wrote in the Autumn issue of RA Magazine,
British Pop Art has tended to be overshadowed by the critical and commercial might of American heavyweights like Warhol and Lichtenstein. This new exhibition endeavours to show how British artists such as Richard Hamilton, Allen Jones RA, David Hockney RA and Peter Blake saw the modern world and created their own breed of Pop Art in this period.
Allen Jones (B. 1937), 'You’ll have to run to catch this bus', 1961. 152.5 x 152.5cm. Private Collection. ©Allen Jones, 2013.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Hamilton’s 1957 letter is not his catalogue of the characteristics of Pop Art but what he writes next: “This is just a beginning…”. Pop Art was above all a beginning, a rewriting of the artistic and cultural traditions of the past and a foundation of a movement that shifted the boundaries between fine art and popular culture. Pop Art was bold, reactionary, rebellious and experimental. The first room of the exhibition captures the energy of the years 1947-61: Peter Phillips’ riotous red canvases, Eduardo Paolozzi’s collages of alluring advertising imagery and Peter Blake’s locker plastered with photographs of Hollywood bombshells.
Many of the works in the exhibition reveal the strong association between British Pop Art and American society, from which British artists derived much of their imagery and ideas. All the archetypal motifs of American popular culture are there: Disney cartoon characters, Coca-Cola, the American flag, JFK, Hollywood celebrities. Indeed, works like Gerald Laing’s Benday dot Surfer Girl (1965), Derek Boshier’s ebullient painting Special K (1961) and Hockney’s early Swimming Pool (1965) imply a British fascination with glossy west-cost American culture.
Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), 'Untitled (Hearts Delight)', 1949. Watercolour and printed paper collage on paper, 39.4 x 26cm. Private Collection. © Trustees of the Paolozzi Foundation, Licensed by DACS 2013. But one of the most interesting things about this exhibition is that it showcases the significant influence of British popular culture on British Pop Art, revealing how British Pop artists were embedded in their own culture just as the Americans were theirs. In the catalogue essay that accompanies the exhibition, Marco Livingstone writes: “For the British artists who were to become identified with Pop in the early '60s, America could certainly seem alluring, but it was exotic and still out of reach”. The culture of Swinging London in particular provided stimulation, subjects and texture for British Pop artists, who began to create icons of their own in the form of The Beatles, Teddy Boys and ’60s fashion.
It is often difficult to view art of the past through eyes unconditioned by modern experience. But in this show it is easy to sense just how exciting British Pop Art would have been to those who first saw it displayed in force. We are able to share in their experiences and reactions, as the breadth of work on display provides a comprehensive overview, showcasing the period in all its diversity.
Daisy Taylor is a London-based writer and contributor to RA Magazine